Virtual adventures in Extremadura
History, tradition, unchanging ways. These things make up a significant part of Extremadura's appeal. They have held an annual livestock fair in Zafra since 1453. Guadalupe's monastery has been accommodating pilgrims who come to venerate its black Madonna since 1340. So what happens when neither of these time-honoured gatherings can go ahead because of the coronavirus pandemic?
This year, in moves you wouldn't automatically associate with either institution, Zafra's Feria Internacional Ganadera (FIG) and Guadalupe's Real Monasterio de Santa María have announced plans to go virtual.
Zafra's Michaelmas feria, held in the first week of October, is Spain's largest agricultural show. Last year, more than a million visitors converged on its 25 hectare (62 acre) fairground. Back in the 15th century, the feria was conceived as a way for Extremadura's farmers to get together to improve their breeding stock, and at its core it has the same purpose today, with 2,500 head of prize cattle, pigs, sheep and horses on show.
But it is so much more than that. Normally, in the days running up to October, there is a grin of anticipation across the region. Everyone asks if you are going to the fair. In our village, the local supermercado lays on a minibus to ferry fairgoers the hour or so back and forth to Zafra. You can read about last year's event here, but in short, it's a week-long shindig of strolling, eating and drinking, chatting, agricultural admiration, rural shopping opportunities, more eating and drinking, then music and dancing, that continues day and night. Our supermarket offers a return minibus trip at 7:30am.
How would you go about replicating that online, as the vast fairground lies desolate and silent? A welcoming arch on FIG's website invites you to Zafra's 1st virtual feria, as opposed to the 567th edition of the real thing. A couple of dozen animated characters stroll unconvincingly across the concourse.
This year, the organisers have split the feria into two parts. Part one deals with technical discussions about the state of Extremaduran agriculture: effectively a series of Zoom calls about the challenges of porcine, bovine and ovine export in already tough circumstances, all the more difficult in the nueva normalidad. Fortnite Battle Royale it ain't.
Part two, to be held at the end of October, will deal with the commercial side of the fair. The thousands of exhibitors who usually show their wares—riding tackle, hunting knives, tractors, swimming pools, paella dishes, prize cheeses, ibérico ham and Portuguese pastries to give you a flavour—will be invited to set out their virtual stall. But this year there will be no animals. The clamour and nuance of a Spanish livestock auction is not yet something to be handled by artificial intelligence.
"Hola", said the archdiocese of Toledo's email with an informality that took me by surprise. The last time I visited the Real Monasterio in Guadalupe it was strictly "Usted" and "Don Peter". Now the digital diocese had slipped into the casual form to welcome me to its virtual pilgrimage. "Queremos darte la bienvenida a esta peregrinación virtual a la Virgen de Guadalupe, Reina de la Hispanidad."
Being queen of the Spanish world, Guadalupe's tiny statue of the Virgin attracts visitors from all over the globe, especially around the 12th of October, Dia de la Hispanidad. The town of Guadalupe sits high in the Sierra de Villuercas, far from anywhere, surrounded by some of Spain's most beautiful countryside and interesting geology. Normally, as you travel through the Ibores Jara UNESCO Geopark you'll pass group after group of pilgrims trudging, staff in hand, towards the monastery and doing that peculiarly Spanish thing of stopping for a blowout lunch just before making their final approach.
Here, the virtual pilgrimage seems to have plenty of potential. Over three days running up to the 12th of October, would-be pilgrims will receive updates to their phone replicating the various stages of the camino. And anyway, the old habit of queuing to kiss an image of the Virgin is surely an unhygenic relic of the past. What they won't get is the chance to sample the local Ibores goat's cheese, aged 100 days and rubbed with smoky red pimentón, or Guadalupe's celebrated morcilla blood sausage, with a glass of cold red wine. Or the wonderfully tacky souvenirs available in almost every shop when they reach town.
Of course, neither Zafra's virtual feria nor Guadalupe's peregrinación virtual will be a patch on the real thing, but that's not the point. The organisers of the feria say they were faced with a choice: do nothing at all or use technology to at least keep the spirit of the fair alive. And they point out that so far their online offering has attracted visitors from 28 countries. Think too of the millions of Spanish-speaking faithful, from Latin America to the Philippines, who have never had the chance to visit the two-foot statue of the Virgin credited with casting a benevolent eye over Columbus's world-changing voyage. With appetite whetted, maybe one day they'll visit Extremadura for real. Maybe you will too.
Update 13 October: ABC reported that more than 2,500 people from 31 countries took part in the virtual pilgrimage. And we all received this splendid certificate of accreditation from the Archbishop of Toledo, the Primate of Spain.
Photos courtesy of FIG and Vatican Media